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For Families Who Have Kids With Special Needs, Interactions With Law Enforcement Can Be Stressful

Jacob McCleland
Sgt. Cory Sutton expains strategies used when interviewing people with special needs in his office at the University of Oklahoma Police Department August 29, 2017


Like many girls their age, fifteen-year-old twins Brooke and Alex Sutton love watching movies. But outings like going to the movies present a special challenge for the Sutton family.  

Brooke and Alex have Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that can cause developmental complications and communication difficulties. This means that sometimes the girls act out in public.

“As a parent, it's not pleasant if you're in the middle of Walmart and your child is going out and you're having a hard time controlling them and people stand around watching you. It's uncomfortable,” said Cory Sutton, Brooke and Alex’s father.

According to Sutton, his daughters’ occasional public “meltdowns” are sometimes misread by onlookers. Though no one has ever called the police on his daughters, Sutton knows well-meaning bystanders might call 911 to mistakenly report child abduction or domestic violence. He says that could lead to uncomfortable interactions with law enforcement.

Sutton is an officer in the University of Oklahoma Police Department. He says law enforcement officers don’t always know how to interact with people with special needs, or how to identify them.

“I'm hoping it's just in the back of their heads somewhere, that they can start to realize or recognize that this person might be on the spectrum,” Sutton said.

For Sutton, being a police officer as well as a parent to children with special needs provides insight into the challenges on both sides.

“If an officer arrives on scene and doesn’t know anything about my kids and they have to lay hands on, obviously as a parent I’m going to be upset about that,” Sutton said. “But at the same time, I also am going to know that they’re not intending to go in there and do any harm.”

After his close family friend’s child with special needs had three run-ins with law enforcement, Sutton says he decided he had to do something.

“I just wasn't comfortable letting my career, my profession, keep going down this path,” Sutton said.

He and his wife, Traci Sutton, developed a curriculum to teach police officers about autism. The class covers what autism is and how to identify it, along with ways officers can try to de-escalate situations and techniques for interviewing people with autism. They pitched the class to Sutton’s department and the first class was held in 2011. The entire University of Oklahoma Police Department went through the training.

Cory and Tracy Sutton continue to teach classes to help police officers learn to better work with people with special needs in their communities. The class is now conducted through the state’s Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, or CLEET.

A Special Needs Registry

The Blanchard Police Department, about 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, has asked the Suttons to host a training session. The department is also starting an autism and special needs registry. The registry is designed as a place for parents and caregivers to list what triggers the person with special needs, what they respond well to and places they like to visit.

The department’s dispatch supervisor, Deanna Mason, began the registry after her granddaughter with autism wandered away from family.

“It is terrifying and it's devastating,” Mason said. “You feel completely lost, completely out of control because you know there's a tiny child and she's probably scared and you're just terrified.”

Nearly half of children with autism will wander from their school or home, according to the National Autism Association. Mason says Many children with autism have a fascination with water, an attraction that can take a deadly toll.In June 2016 a two-week air and water search found an eight-year-old boy with autism had drowned in a creek near Duncan after wandering from his home.

Mason says she hopes the registry will help give police an immediate list of places to look when a child with special needs goes missing. She says the list can also help officers when they respond to any call involving a person with special needs, not just missing persons calls.

“They may go out with someone who they presume is just being combative or uncooperative and they're actually autistic,” Mason said. “And if we were able to inform them of that and tell them the best way to approach them, that would prevent a lot of problems.”

Barbara Doyle agrees. She is a consultant for schools and individuals with special needs and has written books about autism and the legal system.

She says untrained police officers can mistake some behaviors associated with autism for guilty behavior.  

“For example, if a person on the autism spectrum doesn’t make eye contact, sometimes a law enforcement professional who is not trained might think that means they have guilty knowledge or that they’re avoiding contact for another reason,” Doyle said.

Doyle says movies and video games can influence how a person with special needs responds to law enforcement, further complicating interactions.

“When was the last time you saw a movie where when the police officer said ‘Stop, come here,’ that the person in the movie actually stopped and came over to the policeman?” Doyle said.

Doyle says a registry should be implemented across the country, because she says information on a person’s special needs can be invaluable to first responders when emergencies occur.

“They do their best job when they have the most information,” Doyle said. “Most parents I have worked with over the decades are totally willing to provide this information about their son or daughter.”

Cory Sutton says the special needs registry can help officers immediately when a call comes in. But he says police training is necessary to help prepare officers for any situation that arises with someone with special needs.

“I tell officers that just because we try something on Johnny today, it won't necessarily work on Billy. Not only that, but it may not work on Johnny tomorrow,” Sutton said.

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